Institute for Studies In American Music
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Inside This Issue
Review: From Paris to Peoria by Nancy Newman
Review: From Paris to Peoria
by Nancy Newman
“The Celebrated Racer, De Meyer, (The property of G.C. Reitheimer, Esq.) winning the Great Fall Sweepstakes of 1846” (Yankee Doodle, October 1846)
Courtesy of the Literature Department, The Free Library of Philadelphia
The appearance of R. Allen Lott’s From Paris to Peoria: How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland (Oxford University Press, 2003; $55) bears a certain resemblance to the subject matter it treats: like the arrival of the nineteenth-century European virtuosi on these shores, this book has been eagerly awaited and much anticipated. Having been tantalized by brief glimpses and advance reports, this reviewer is happy to attest that the wait has been worthwhile. From Paris to Peoria offers the reader a vivid portrait of a singular aspect of concert life in the United States, the solo recitals of five notable pianists during the years 1845-1876: Leopold De Meyer, Henri Herz, Sigismund Thalberg, Anton Rubinstein, and Hans von Bülow, performer–composers who exerted tremendous influence on America’s musical life but whose concert tours have never before been systematically examined.
The scholarly consideration of traveling virtuosi is the book’s great innovation. Just as nineteenth-century Americans had to wait for celebrated European performers to make the arduous trip across the Atlantic, we of the twenty-first century have had to wait for the emergence of an intellectual climate that would support the serious treatment of such a topic. Just twenty-five years ago, for example, H. Earle Johnson could pay a back-handed compliment to the New York Philharmonic and Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society by comparing their accomplishments to those of visiting musicians. The “feeble bodies” of such mid-nineteenth century American ensembles had “accomplished more for music than touring virtuosi (De Meyer, Herz, Gottschalk, Ole Bull, Remenyi, and Thalberg) who, confounding audiences with their individualisms and their techniques, implanted low standards by means of galops, waltzes, themes and variations, and nauseous potpourris.”1 Similar attitudes have long found support in Liszt’s renunciation of the recital circuit and Schumann’s condemnations of exhibitionistic performers. Yet to accept the received wisdom on this topic is to ignore both the re-evaluation of the role of performers in shaping music history, as seen in Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, and the nineteenth-century mingling of popular and serious genres explored in Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow.
Further evidence for the changed climate is found in the rehabilitated reputations of two of Johnson’s targets, Gottschalk and Ole Bull. Three others—Herz, De Meyer, and Thalberg—are the subjects of Lott’s research, and his analyses promise to do the same for these figures. These three were the subject of Lott’s dissertation, and he has extended this study to include the more prominent Rubinstein and von Bülow. By bringing these five pianists together in a single volume, addressing their similarities as well as their differences, Lott enables us to look at the question of the virtuosi’s impact and accomplishments in an entirely new light. What he has found is a “listening continuum” spanning thirty years, a time in which “most Americans believed the visiting virtuosos were a beneficent phenomenon, awakening musical interest among a wide range of audiences and providing excellent models for students and aspiring professional musicians” (p. 292). Indeed, Lott observes that our own age is still beholden to the virtuoso. The difference is that while the mid-nineteenth-century virtuoso played his or her own, individualized compositions, the late nineteenth and twentieth-century virtuosi performed their own, individualized “interpretations” (p. 290). Such insights coax us toward a more sophisticated understanding of the function of spectacle in the pursuit of aesthetic pleasures.
Lott has derived a satisfying scheme for the presentation of an abundance of information. The book is organized into five roughly equal parts, each one focused on a virtuoso and arranged in chronological order of his concert tour of the United States. Each part is comprised of several chapters, providing relevant biographical information, an evaluation of the career point at which an American tour was undertaken, a description of the tour and its highlights, analyses of repertory, and the introduction of “assisting artists.” In addition to providing a wealth of material on five renowned pianists, From Paris to Peoria is an important source of information on a number of notable violinists, including Henry Vieuxtemps, Joseph Burke, George Knoop, Henryk Wienawski and Camillo Sivori (Paganini’s “only pupil” [p. 76]). Lott’s discussion of the prominent role played by violinists in eliciting audience appreciation for fabulous technique, fertile invention, and unique interpretation, suggests that a comparable project treating transatlantic violin virtuosi such as Eduard Remenyi and Miska Hauser awaits further research.
The book’s structure resembles a mid-century concert or theater program in its pacing, with the presentation of the main parts—each containing lively writing and highly varied topics—linked by two brief interludes. The latter address nineteenth-century views on issues such as the educational value of virtuoso performance, female pianists, and the changing function of the piano itself. In addition, insets are used as “sweetmeats” throughout the book to treat special topics, such as “Liszt and America,” “The Bleeding of Sivori” (by the press), and “Rubinstein’s Contract.” Everything is framed by an introductory “prelude” and concluding “postlude.” Finally, two appendices coordinate much data. The first gives the itineraries (dates and cities) of each pianist’s tour; the second, the repertoire performed by Rubinstein and Bülow in the United States.
From Paris to Peoria is also richly peppered with illustrations, including portraits of each pianist, maps displaying their concert destinations, caricatures, cartoons, program broadsides, sheet music covers, and musical examples. Special mention should be made of the brief but insightful musical analyses featured in several sections. From De Meyer’s “exotic” La danse du sérail, op. 51, to Herz’s crowd–pleaser, The Last Rose of Summer, op. 159, to Thalberg’s opera fantasias, Lott has found a context in which to address “the music itself” so that such an endeavor is meaningful rather than positivistic. Audio examples are available through a supporting website (www.rallenlott.info), as are several full scores and an abundance of additional material. The website seems both scholarly and promotional in design, and sections such as “Satire”—a compendium of lengthy articles “that spoof virtuoso pianists, traveling artists in general, the people who managed them, and the people who heard them”—promise to serve both purposes.
A small peculiarity of the book is that the index includes neither Paris nor Peoria, although both places are mentioned in the text and many other towns have index entries. The omission of Paris seems particularly unfortunate, as a more extensive consideration of the transatlantic ramifications of the traveling virtuosi’s activities would be welcome. But not to worry: we who study nineteenth-century American musical life know that the greatest rewards are worth the wait.
University at Albany
1 H. Earle Johnson, First Performances in America to 1900: Works with Orchestra. Bibliographies in American Music 4 (Detroit: College Music Society, 1979), xiv.
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